Elliott Abrams, U.S. Special Representative for Venezuela
MS ORTAGUS: Thank you so much and good afternoon, everybody. I know we’re having this call right after we did the press conference with the Secretary and we have another briefing later today, so apologies that we’re piling all of you up today. We’re going to try to allow for as much time as possible for Q&A (inaudible) many of you have it. But just want to reiterate, of course, that this is an on-the-record briefing with Special Representative for Venezuela and now also for Iran Elliott Abrams. While this is an on-the-record briefing, the contents of this briefing are embargoed until the end of the call, please.
This is actually Elliott’s first press briefing since he assumed both roles. He will of course begin with an introductory statement and then we’ll turn over to your questions. Just a reminder, you can press 1 and then 0 at any point in time on (inaudible) to enter the question queue.
So with that, I’ll go ahead and turn it over to Special Representative Abrams.
MR ABRAMS: Thanks, Morgan. I want to begin with a comment on Venezuela and the fraudulent election for the National Assembly now scheduled for December 6th, and then turn to Iran.
None of the basic conditions for free elections exist in Venezuela. Opposition parties have been stolen and regime agents appointed to run them; the national elections commission is completely under regime control; freedom of the press does not exist; repression and intimidation by the police and colectivo gangs continues. There are not reliable and tested voting machines in Venezuela. The rules of the game were recently changed by the regime, which created over 100 new National Assembly seats and changed voting district lines. I could go on. And this is precisely why Interim President Juan Guaido and a coalition of 37 parties has said they would not legitimize this fraud by participating in the election. Needless to say, those conditions will not be cured merely by postponement; fraudulent elections are no less fraudulent if held a few months later.
A cornerstone of our policy in Venezuela has been to support the diverse and broad array of democratic actors fighting for liberty and democracy there. To those who have decided to participate in the National Assembly elections, our message is that you have a special obligation to demand the necessary, internationally accepted conditions for free and fair elections, and to speak openly about the repression and corruption of the Maduro regime.
We are able to distinguish between democratic actors who differ on strategy and people who work with the regime to undermine democracy. We will not hesitate to apply the full force of U.S. sanctions to the latter group, as we have been doing in the last few years. To all Venezuelans who struggle for free elections and a restoration of democracy, we continue to pledge our full support. And as you know, Secretary Pompeo will be visiting all of Venezuela’s neighbors – Colombia, Brazil, and Guyana – in a trip that starts tomorrow.
I would draw your attention to the report of the United Nations Human Rights Council today by the UN’s Independent Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela. This United Nations mission, quote, “found reasonable grounds to believe that Venezuelan authorities and security forces have since 2014 planned and executed serious human rights violations, some of which” – still quoting – “some of which – including arbitrary killings and the systematic use of torture – amount to crimes against humanity,” close quote. And then in an extraordinary statement for a UN report, it says, quote, “the mission has reasonable grounds to believe that both the president and the ministers of people’s power for interior relations, justice and peace, and for defense, ordered or contributed to the commission of these crimes documented in this report,” close quote. These crimes, says the UN, crimes against humanity, start at the top.
Now, we’re aware of reports of additional tankers heading to Venezuela from Iran, and that’s another reminder of how Maduro has destroyed Venezuela’s economy and infrastructure through incompetence and mismanagement and corruption and created the need to import gasoline into this oil-rich country. The installed crude oil refinery capacity in Venezuela is 1,300,000 barrels a day. But that corruption and neglect have reduced actual gasoline refined to less than 5 percent of that. So the regime turned to another international pariah, Iran, shipping it gold to buy gasoline.
As you know, virtually all UN sanctions on Iran will come back into place this weekend at 8:00 p.m. Eastern Time on Saturday the 19th. The arms embargo will now be re-imposed indefinitely and other restrictions will return, including the ban on Iran engaging in enrichment and reprocessing-related activities, the prohibition on ballistic missile testing and development, and sanctions on the transfer of nuclear and missile-related technologies to Iran.
The Secretary said just a couple of hours ago that we expect all UN member states to implement the UN sanctions fully and respect the process and obligations to uphold these sanctions. We’ll have a lot more to say on this, in detail, on Monday.
This is a good moment to reflect on the almost religious commitment of some countries to that nuclear deal. But five years of JCPOA meetings have not moderated Iran’s tactics or choices at all. It’s time for peace-loving nations to recognize this reality and join us in imposing sanctions on Iran. It is astonishing that anyone would think or have thought it sensible to allow the arms embargo on Iran to expire next month, given that regime’s role in destabilizing Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon and its continuing support for terrorism.
I want to close with the story of Navid Afkari, the young Iranian wrestling champion. In the summer of 2018, Navid joined a peaceful protest along with his two brothers. The regime arrested all three of them and tortured them into confessing for a murder that took place when they were in a completely different part of town. The regime wanted to make an example of them and, as you know, executed Navid last weekend.
This is a terrible reminder of the brutal and despotic regime with which we are dealing. I would remind you that yesterday Siamak Namazi celebrated his 49th birthday in the notorious Evin Prison. That marked 1,800 days – 1,800 days since the Iranian regime first took him hostage. Siamak, his father Baquer, and Morad Tahbaz remain innocent victims of the Iranian regime and we work every single day to gain their release.
Thanks, and I’m happy to take questions on either Venezuela or Iran.
MS ORTAGUS: Wonderful. Okay, great. First up in the queue is Gabriela Perozo, VPITV.
QUESTION: Hi, good afternoon. Thank you so much for this opportunity. Do you think that this new report presented by the UN independent mission will help Europe not allow itself to be manipulated by this new strategy of Maduro to release political prisoners to achieve a dialogue? Do you believe that the UN General Assembly will be a good platform to reaffirm the strategy around the Interim President Guaido?
And another question: Will Secretary Pompeo’s trip to Brazil and Colombia bring some surprises, maybe something new against the Maduro regime? Thank you.
MR ABRAMS: Thanks. Well, as to the Secretary’s trip bringing surprises, of course if I said anything, it wouldn’t be surprises. There will be a briefing about the trip and I will let and, during the trip, the Secretary speak about the trip.
On your first question, I sure hope so. This is an extraordinary report to come from the United Nations. We’re not used to seeing such tough reporting coming directly from the United Nations. So I hope it will have an impact on any government that is thinking about its policy toward the Maduro regime. This begins with a meeting – an important meeting – tomorrow of the International Contact Group on Venezuela, which will obviously issue a statement, as they always do. So I think this will remind people of the nature of the regime and remind them that the release of some political prisoners – in some cases partial release because they’re released to house arrest or the charges have not yet been dropped, and many others have not been released – this is a regime move that, as your question really suggested, is a tactic that does not change the nature of the regime and its systematic human rights violations, which are documented in this very substantial report.
As to the UN General Assembly, I don’t know whether it will affect how the assembly votes on Venezuela. I really hope it will and I think that there will be a lot of governments around the world that will read this report, and particularly for those who don’t follow Venezuela closely it will be a revelation.
MS ORTAGUS: Great, thank you so much. We’ll now turn it over to Matt Lee, AP.
QUESTION: Thanks, Elliott. I have a – my questions are about Iran. You guys can say all you want that you expect UN member-states to go ahead and join you in enforcing the sanctions that you say are going to be reimposed, but the reality of the situation is that no one – no other country – exception for maybe Israel and maybe the Gulf, some of the Gulf countries – think that you have the legal standing to do this and so they’re not going to enforce them. So why is it wrong for people to think that you guys are just barreling ahead with something that is going to create major problems for the UN in terms of its credibility and the credibility of the Security Council, as well as U.S. credibility? Thanks.
MR ABRAMS: Thanks, Matt. Secretary Pompeo did address similar questions, and I’ll answer your question as best I can, but I would urge you to take a look also at what he said at about noon today in the press conference with Foreign Secretary Raab. I do remember a couple of years ago the many, many expert opinions suggesting that the unilateral imposition of sanctions by the United States would have no effect on Iran, and as the Secretary said, boy, all you have to do is look at the Iranian economy to see that that is not true. And the reason that it was not true is that whatever foreign ministries said, individuals, businesspersons, banks, companies around the world paid attention to the sanctions and did not wish to violate them. I think you will see that happen again with respect to the reimposition of UN sanctions. I think that all of those individual actors around the world will take a look at the text of those sanctions and what the United States is saying and will realize that for them, the UN sanctions must be regarded as back into effect. So I do think that this will have a very significant impact.
I don’t – and I think it’s – the United States, first of all, is not isolated with respect to the arms embargo. I think and we know from our conversations there are many countries around the world that feel exactly as we do, including in Europe, about the expiration of the arms embargo. There was a letter from the Gulf Cooperation Council, all the members, to the UN Security Council, saying please do not let the UN arms embargo end. And as the Secretary said, what we’re dealing with here is an effort on the part of the United States to overcome the diplomatic malpractice five years ago that suggested it would be a good idea to allow Iran to import and export any – any arms it wanted to – main battle tanks, combat jets – in only five years. That’s what we’re up against and that’s why we’re taking this action.
MS ORTAGUS: Thank you so much. Okay, I’m going to try not to mispronounce the name here. Haik, H-a-i-k, Garats, G-a-r-a-t-s, from Argus Media.
QUESTION: Hi, this is Haik Gugarats with Argus Media. Thank you. I have two questions for you, sir, one on Venezuela and one on Iran.
On Venezuela, what is your current thinking on the diesel-for-crude swaps? Are your efforts to persuade companies not to participate in those working, and if not, do you think at some point a government directive to end it via sanctions will be necessary?
And on Iran snapback, I’m trying to understand the practical effect given that you just said unilateral U.S. sanctions pretty much already ended most dealings between Iran and all the other countries. So what is it exactly that your snapback will do in ending any new transactions? Is it humanitarian deals, or what exactly will be the practical effect? Thank you.
MR ABRAMS: Thanks. On the latter question, not humanitarian deals, there are carveouts in all – all U.S. sanctions for humanitarian goods such as food and medicine. But I’ll give you an example of where we expect a practical effect: the arms embargo. And as you know, it was the position of the United States that the arms embargo should be extended, and had it been extended, we would not have had to snap back to restore the full panoply of UN sanctions. So one practical effect, we believe, will be to say to arms manufacturers and traders around the world that if you engage in business with Iran, the very full force of these new or, rather, restored sanctions will be felt immediately. They will be placed on you. So I think you will see that happen.
With respect to diesel and the impact of U.S. sanctions, I would just note first: You may have seen the decision by Tipco, the asphalt company, which has been a significant consumer of Venezuelan oil and deals with the regime, and PDVSA has announced that it is getting out of that business. We’re looking very carefully at the diesel question and we note, for example, that the Maduro regime is consistently shipping diesel and other oil products to Cuba. I have no announcements to make today, but I think it’s pretty well known that we’re reviewing the whole diesel question.
MS ORTAGUS: Thank you. Carol Morello, Washington Post.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) Elliott, you just said that arms dealers around the world will realize that the restored sanctions will be felt immediately. Are you making concrete plans now for secondary sanctions after the embargo officially expires next month? And do you have any thoughts on what the impact – having a confrontation with U.S. allies, Russia, China, Iran, and the Security Council itself might – just two weeks before the election – might have on the vote itself?
MR ABRAMS: First, in our view, the UN sanctions snap back on Saturday at 8:00 p.m. So the October – I think it’s October 18th, the date for the end of the UN arms embargo – becomes a less significant date. As to whether we are making concrete plans, we are in many ways, and we will have some announcements over the weekend and more announcements on Monday and then subsequent days next week as to exactly how we are planning to enforce these returned UN sanctions. So you’ll see that. We actually have some announcements this week, but more on Saturday and then more on Monday and next week. I don’t think that this action on the part of the United States to enforce Resolution 2231 will have a negative impact on the UN Security Council unless other members of the Council continue to take the view that the UN sanctions have not returned and can be ignored. And whether those countries will in fact ignore the UN sanctions remains to be seen. We followed the procedures exactly set forth in Resolution 2231 word for word.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay, thank you. We now have Meghan Gordon from Platts.
QUESTION: Hi, thank you. Yes, on the Iranian fuel cargos heading to Venezuela, do you plan to target those with additional civil forfeiture cases like we saw earlier this summer or any other additional measures, or does the fact that they’re using Iranian tankers limit any options for stopping them?
MR ABRAMS: Well, our first goal was to make sure that no one other than Iran would engage in this trade. And it is interesting, actually. A lot of people have gasoline for sale. Certainly, China and Russia have gasoline for sale, but U.S. sanctions have led them to the view that they should not be engaged in that trade, and the Greek shippers have gotten out of that trade.
So we’re left only with Iranian tankers, Iranian-owned, flagged crude vessels that are engaged in that trade in a limited way. There are three on the way; that’ll provide a few weeks of gasoline. If you wanted to prevent the return of the kind of shortages that are now so common in Venezuela, you’d have had to leave Iran yesterday with another three tankers. You would need a shuttle service, which we have not seen.
So we’re watching what Iran is doing and making sure, in the first instance, that other shippers, insurers, ship owners, ship captains realize they must stay away from that trade.
MS ORTAGUS: Thank you. Joel Gerhke, Washington Examiner.
QUESTION: Hi, thank you for doing this. I just wanted to follow up on the Iran question. I wonder: What practical actions do you believe that European countries could take to deter or interdict to Russian and Chinese arms sales to Iran? Would it be additional Iran-related sanctions on the Russian defense industry or new sanctions on Chinese companies? Would these actions find their legal basis solely in the UN arms embargo or could they be taken under the EU arms embargo authority or some other initiative?
And then kind of related to that, setting aside the particular legal dispute with the UN Security Council, I wonder: Are there any negotiations perhaps from British officials, any proposals for how the – how U.S. and European countries might cooperate to mitigate the perceived threats that all parties perceive from these arms deals?
MR ABRAMS: Yeah. Well, the European countries told us – the EU-3 and others as well – that they don’t want the arms embargo to end, but they were unable to take any action that kept the UN arms embargo in place. There’s a separate EU arms embargo.
What the European countries could do would be, number one, to enforce the UN sanctions that returned this weekend. Secondly, they could maintain a UN – sorry, an EU arms embargo on Iran and they could do that indefinitely. Thirdly, they could cooperate closely with us as – and when they see any effort by Russia, China, or anybody else to sell arms to Iran. We – again, we will be enforcing those UN sanctions.
In as much as the EU-3 and other Europeans have said to us, they really wish the UN arms embargo remained in place. They should take action to make sure, first, that no EU country engages in an arms sale to Iran, and second, they should be helping us to enforce the UN sanctions. And I do think that if the EU joined us in maintaining those sanctions, obviously it would have an impact on companies that were contemplating a sale.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay, great, thank you. Let’s see. Next up in the queue, Muath Alamri.
MS ORTAGUS: Muath Alamri.
OPERATOR: Go ahead. Your line is open.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay. I’ll give you one more chance. Muath.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay.
MS ORTAGUS: Hi. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Yeah, thank you. I would like to ask you about the intelligence report that Politico has published about the story about the – Iran weighing to attempt to assassinate the U.S. ambassador to the – to South Africa as a retaliation for the Soleimani killing. If you could elaborate what is the impact could happen and what those targets that Iran is looking to attack.
MR ABRAMS: I would say first that – I would say first that no one should be surprised by reports in the press that Iran is contemplating or planning acts of terrorism. This regime has decades of blood on its hands for terrorist attacks not only near Iran, but all over the world, then we remember the plan to attack the Saudi ambassador here in Washington.
Other than that, I would only say that the State Department and the U.S. Government more generally are always very attentive to the need to protect American officials around the world, but I don’t want to comment beyond that on this particular set of press reports.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay, thank you. Nick Schifrin, PBS.
MS ORTAGUS: Nick Schifrin.
OPERATOR: Mr. Schifrin, please press 1, 0.
MS ORTAGUS: Oh, sorry. I thought he was still in the queue. Okay. If he’s not in the queue, then let’s go over to Lara Jakes, New York Times. I believe she’s on.
OPERATOR: One moment. Okay. Ms. Jakes, your line is open.
QUESTION: Hey Elliott, hey Morgan. Elliott, could you please speak to the case, the curious case of Matthew Heath, this former military – Marine, I believe – who the Venezuelan Government is saying is a U.S. spy? I mean, assuming you won’t speak to whether or not he’s an agent, certainly if there is an American who is being kept – held captive in Venezuela, I would assume that is something that the United States Government is trying to untangle and get him back home. Could you please bring us up to speed on the – those efforts? Thanks.
MR ABRAMS: Well, there’s a limit to what I can say because I don’t have the privacy waiver that would allow us for – that would allow us to say a bit more. Obviously, we are always concerned when we get a report about an American who has been jailed in a foreign country. And Venezuela is particularly difficult because we do not have an embassy with a consular section in Caracas.
I don’t think there’s much else I can say about this case except that from everything I’ve seen, it’s – I can say that the United States Government did not send Mr. Heath to Venezuela.
MS ORTAGUS: Thank you. I think I want to try to get Nick back on, Nick Schifrin – he said he was on the line – PBS. Can we get him back on?
OPERATOR: Go ahead, your line is open.
QUESTION: Thanks, Morgan. Hey, Elliott. Thanks for doing this. Logistically, as I understand it, the resolution requires the U.S. to veto a resolution that would extend the sanctions, the snapback sanctions. So just making sure that’s right. Is the U.S. planning to introduce its own resolution that it would then veto, or do you think that’s not even necessary ahead of Saturday night?
And a larger question: If those other countries don’t enforce these sanctions, do you fear that dilutes other Security Council sanctions, including, of course, the ones you’ve been talking about and working on when it comes to Venezuela? Thanks.
MR ABRAMS: I think you’re misreading 2231. I think 2231 is pretty clear that any JCPOA participant state can send that notification to the Security Council about Iran’s failure to meet its responsibilities. And sanctions return 30 days later unless a resolution has been adopted that continues the lifting of sanctions which 2231 brought, the sanctions in all the previous resolutions – 1737, 1929, and so forth.
So one way of getting there is somebody introduces a resolution to continue the sanctions, and they’re vetoed. That resolution is vetoed. The other way of getting there is that somebody introduces the letter to the council notifying it, and then the resolution to continue the lifting of sanctions does not pass. Well, it’s not passing. No one has introduced it. So the sanctions snap back.
I do think 2231 is pretty clear on that. A – the introduction of a resolution and its veto is not required. And if you go back to the speeches of various officials made five years ago, they were very clear in saying that one country – we, in this case – can bring back the sanctions without the action of any other. So I don’t think that’s – I don’t think your interpretation of it was right.
As to the impact on other Security Council sanctions, well, needless to say we hope not. What the United States is doing here is following the exact text of the UN Security Council Chapter VII resolution, Resolution 2231. And if other nations do not follow it, I think they should actually be asked your question, whether they do not think they’re weakening the structure of UN sanctions.
MS ORTAGUS: Great. Thank you so much. Okay, I know we’re just – we’re running out of time here; I’ll try to fit one or two more in if I can. We had – sorry, guys, let me just the queue up back here – Nora Gamez from The Miami Herald.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) this. I just have a question about Venezuela. The U.S. has said it’s willing to negotiate with Maduro, his exit. Does the fact that the UN believes he has committed crimes against humanity makes this hypothetical negotiations less likely?
MR ABRAMS: I think it’s a – this UN report is a reminder of the nature of this regime. That’s why the United States introduced a few months ago our framework for a democratic transition, because we believed – and still do – that you need to get a transitional government in Venezuela that can hold a free election. If you look at this UN report and the nature of the crimes that it attributes to Maduro and the Maduro regime, you would really have to ask yourself, what is the chance that Maduro and his regime are actually going to hold a free election? Our conclusion was that there was no chance, which is why we said there needs to be a transitional government for the purpose of holding – in six months, nine months, whatever, twelve months – a really free and fair presidential election.
We’ve also, in the – we’ve said that to many, many governments around the world, and it’s one of the reasons why we think that the notion that there will be a free election on December 6th really defies both logic and everything we know about the nature of this regime. The problem is that some people seem to think that the – time is the issue. So, okay, not December 6th, maybe postpone three months, and then we can organize a free election. We do not believe that it will be possible to organize free elections under this regime.
MS ORTAGUS: Thank you. Okay, let’s see, I had somebody from ABC here. Oh yeah, David Alandete from ABC.
QUESTION: Thank you, Morgan. Thank you, Ambassador Abrams. I wanted to ask you, there’s a meeting this Thursday of the Grupo de Contacto with the European Union. It seems that the High Commissioner Borrell mentioned that maybe, maybe a postponement of the election would guarantee the European Union sending observers. He didn’t say this himself; his office said it to some journalists in Brussels. And I wanted to know if what you think can happen from this meeting of the Grupo de Contacto, and if the postponement of the election was acceptable for the European Union, what would the United States diplomacy say to that? Thank you very much.
MR ABRAMS: There are two issues here. The first, as I said a moment ago, is timing. No one believes they could, even if they wanted to hold a free election in December, that they could actually organize one. They need 30- or 40,000 voting machines. They need to import them from someplace. Five million Venezuelans are now outside the country and millions more have moved inside the country. So the updating of the electoral register is an enormous task that could not possibly be completed by December, again, even if you were really trying to do it with good will.
But there’s a second issue, and here’s where I worry a bit about some of the things that we’ve heard from Brussels. The mere postponement is not enough. The electoral conditions must change. As I noted at the beginning, and I won’t go through all of them again, but remember that they’ve changed the rules of the game recently. The electoral commission is completely in Maduro’s hands. There’s no freedom of the press. The major opposition parties have been taken over and regime people have been made into the top officials of those parties, so there are no conditions for free elections.
What am I worried about? What I’m worried about is a deal under which the European Union essentially says, “If – we’re not going to monitor elections in December. But if you postpone, then we can probably monitor.” Once you make that agreement, if you do, then you’re leaning very far forward toward monitoring. And if along the way – this is the danger – if along the way Maduro arrests this woman, Maduro jails that man, Maduro refuses to let these people out of prison, you’re – you don’t want to say, “Well, we made a mistake, and we’re not going to monitor, and we’re going to pull back.” There will be, I think, a normal human tendency to try to minimize or overlook both violations so that you can go forward with your agreement – “If you postpone, then we will monitor.”
I think that would be a terrible deal. And I think the EU should, in the International Contact Group meeting tomorrow and in other statements it makes, be extremely clear that timing is just one factor and the fundamental conditions have to be put in place. I have sometimes thought in listening to the phrase “basic conditions” or “what are the minimum conditions,” that what some of you spokesmen are saying is, well, of course in Europe we need to have all the conditions for free elections but in Venezuela you just need basic minimum conditions, and that’s the wrong attitude. Venezuelans are entitled to free and fair elections just as much as anyone in Europe.
MS ORTAGUS: Well, thank you, Elliott, you’ve been really gracious with your time. I’m going to have one more question and then many of you will be dialing in to our next briefing with . So can we go to Eli Lake, Bloomberg, for last question? Do we have Eli on —
QUESTION: Yeah, can you hear me?
MS ORTAGUS: Okay.
OPERATOR: Your line is now – oh, he just took himself out. One moment. Please press 1, 0 again.
MS ORTAGUS: Eli, I think we still have you.
OPERATOR: Go ahead, Eli, your line is open.
QUESTION: Okay. Thanks so much for doing this, Elliott. Really quick, it’s almost 10 months since the U.S. killed Qasem Soleimani. Have you seen a deterrent effect as a result of that? Is Iran as threatening as it was before that action, or can you comment on that at all?
MR ABRAMS: Yeah. I would say that action did a very great deal to restore American deterrence and I would say a certain degree of caution on the part of Iran. Prior to that they or some of them were in doubt about the willingness of the United States to conduct an activity like that, and I think some other countries in the region were too. And I think it’s much clearer now that the United States is truly willing to act to defend itself and its allies and to act against terrorism in the region. And so I think as we’ve looked at Iranian reaction since then, I can’t mindread but there are indications of some degree of caution on the part of Iran about what reaction from the United States a particular Iranian action might evoke.
MS ORTAGUS: Great. Well, thank you, everybody, for dialing in today. We’ve gone quite over. Thank you, Elliott, so much for the extra time. And we’ll have another briefing this afternoon with and I hope you all dial in then. Thank you.
MR ABRAMS: Thanks. Bye.